I am a woman, a feminist, and I should be made to serve National Service (NS).
In my opinion, these three points are inextricably linked. Believing in compulsory conscription is a feminist obligation. Not just because men are doing it, but because it also has the ability to re-shape cultural attitudes towards women.
Many feminists will disagree, choosing to argue against conscription entirely. As well-intentioned as this line of reasoning is, it’s a cop-out. It’s also extremely unrealistic and irrelevant. The fact is, NS is crucial for a small nation like Singapore.
At this point in time, asking women to serve NS can be seen as a way forward for gender equality. It will debunk the stereotype that the “fairer sex” is afraid of getting their hands dirty, literally or metaphorically, and is only useful for procreation. It also counters the argument that women are not biologically built for ‘masculine’ disciplines such as engineering and artillery.
As such, to not advocate for female conscription isn’t just anti-feminist. It also reinforces the patriarchy.
They’re not wrong.
According to a Straits Times opinion article published two years ago, a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies showed that even though an “overwhelming 98 percent” of citizens showed support for NS, only “9 percent of all Singaporean women surveyed supported female conscription”.
In the same article, a different study found uncannily similar results: “22 percent of Singaporean women support female conscription, but only 9 percent would be willing to do it for two years”.
Besides, being female automatically means we are able to immediately pursue further studies after JC or poly. We also won’t go through reservist training till we’re 40, which is what some men tell me is the true burden of NS. And we get to start climbing the corporate ladder two years ahead of our male friends.
With these enviable advantages, it feels counterintuitive that any woman would (literally) want to put ourselves through shit in the name of “gender equality”.
Surely even the fight for a more inclusive Singapore should be sensible, not overly naive and idealistic.
Yes, these thoughts are understandable. Yet if any of this resonates because you’re a female feminist who genuinely doesn’t want to do NS, then you just have to accept that gender equality may never see the light of day.
No matter how much we agree with the egalitarian concept of women serving NS, just a few of us are actually game when it comes to walking the talk.
These include the lack of logistics to cater for a whole nation of full-time national servicemen, not disrupting a woman’s fertility period by taking off two years for NS, and not letting economy efficiency suffer by killing the aspirations of even more youth through military training.
Essentially, they argue that equality is not a good enough reason to make an entire gender ‘suffer’ as well.
Nonetheless, gender equality is still the fundamental objective underpinning the case for compulsory female conscription. If we stop making only men go through NS, would Singaporean men be ready to give up the advantages they enjoy in a patriarchal society?
Although sexism has far-reaching implications across all sectors and members of society, men inevitably benefit from the imbalance of gender power play, regardless of whether they want to.
As long as we restrict NS to just men, we continue to perpetuate existing gender norms. For instance, NS reinforces the stereotype that men are the stronger and smarter sex, more capable of running and protecting the nation. In the same breath, it also implies that women are damsels in distress, afraid of dirty and rough situations.
For a country that likes to pick our future leaders from the army, fewer women in the army naturally means fewer female politicians. This lack of female representation isn’t just apparent among the present government, but also in leadership positions across other industries.
Where gender norms are concerned, the common argument against women serving NS focuses on a woman’s ability to get pregnant.
Some argue (or joke) that women shouldn’t serve because they are already producing babies for the nation. That is their national service. I don’t need to explain how moronic it is to compare giving birth to being in the military—the two are completely different kinds of hardship.
On the other hand, others claim that doing NS takes two years off a woman’s fertility period and puts our future childbearers in harm’s way. Never mind if a woman doesn’t plan to have children at all. Her biology speaks for her.
And then there’s the blatant misogyny perpetuated through vulgar songs taught in camp or standard “locker room talk” that objectifies women. At 18, these behaviours are “harmless” because “boys will be boys”. Bro culture is “all in good fun” and helps “bonding and team spirit”, so it can’t be all that bad.
But their effects last way beyond NS. In worst case scenarios, they create a subconscious disrespect for women.
I suspect many men still like their women to be well put together instead of holding weapons, getting dirty, and bunking with other men in tents.
Where the NS debate is concerned, many women don’t challenge gender norms either. Even those of us who wholeheartedly support female conscription are hardly protesting our ‘unfair’ treatment.
Still, everyone likes to think that they’re progressive and forward thinking. So let’s just say women fight and win this battle for equality. What then?
To begin with, there would be much stiffer competition in NS. In school, many females already outdo males in both physical fitness and mental prowess. The army may be no different.
Eventually, this won’t just mean men will report to more women of higher ranks. It will also mean they have to entrust their lives to women, therefore flipping the script on the gender stereotype that men are protectors.
Much of the debate for compulsory conscription for females also proposes that instead of just military roles, women are assigned to civil and community service too. These are seen as ‘softer’ industries related to care-giving.
For many men who take this stance, the debate usually ends there. Yet if this was truly about gender equality, these men should fight to be mandatorily assigned ‘softer’ vocations as well.
As a result of equality, NS can then no longer be used to justify the gender wage gap.
Of course, this is an ideal world. It’s also far-fetched and simplistic, since we intuitively know that Singaporean society isn’t ready for this.
Subconsciously or otherwise, men continue to objectify and think less of women. Many still think we can’t beat our male counterparts in climbing the corporate ladder. They still believe we shouldn’t earn more than a man in the family. They even question a woman’s ability to live a fulfilling life in the absence of a male partner.
And women, whether we like it or not, still play along when the imbalance of gender dynamics benefits us.
So forgive me for thinking it’s hypocritical and laughable to advocate for change on a lofty scale (i.e., female conscription) when we don’t even work towards gender equality in our daily actions.
Sure, I have always felt it’s only fair that NS be made compulsory for me, but my country isn’t ready for the full impact of true gender equality.
The men and women I know definitely aren’t.